VEGA News Item

Education, Environment & Animal Welfare in Guatemala - 13/03/2007
A VEGA employee went to Guatemala for a month to work with a local school in Panajachel teaching about the environment and animal welfare.

A VEGA employee went to Guatemala for a month to work with a local school in Panajachel teaching about the environment and animal welfare.


Guatemala is roughly the size of Ireland and is situated in Central America, between Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. The climate ranges from cool highlands, tropical semi-dry savannah, fertile lowland coasts and tropical jungle. Two thirds of the country is mountainous and volcanic. The local culture has been much influenced by the Mayan community, the Spanish (the conquerors), and the North Americans. The ancient Mayans occupied a vast geographic area in Central and South America from around 2000 BC until 1500 AD. Today the Mayans account for around 50% of the Guatemalan population. Mayan crafts include weaving, baskets, pottery and wood-carved animals and toys.

Market stalls

In 1996, Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war fought between government and rebel forces, costing an estimated 200,000 lives. In the 10 years since the end of the civil war no one has faced charges for any of the acts of murder and torture that took place.

Guatemala is vulnerable to hurricanes and other tropical storms that pass through the region. In 1999, Hurricane Mitch caused millions of US dollars in damage, creating floods, landslides and leading to a decline in the production of major export crops such as coffee and bananas. In 2005, Hurricane Stan caused further casualties and landslides. Many farmers lost crops and land, and people still live in refugee areas in e.g. Santiago.

About 2/3 of the population practice farming of some sort. Most people cultivate the country’s food staples; maize, sorghum and beans, as well as the main exports; coffee, sugar and bananas. The livestock sector includes cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep. Guatemala's fisheries produce shrimps, snapper and tuna. Industries include tourism, petroleum, chemicals, metals, timber, rubber, furniture, textiles, clothing and sugar, accounting for around 20% of Guatemala's GDP and employing 15% of the workforce.

Guatemala has 11.2 million inhabitants and 96% of them hold just 14% of the land. Many families live in extreme poverty due to the lack of land for growing crops. The indigenous population is a large part of these 96%; they live primarily in rural areas and have limited access to public services. Illiteracy and lack of education are key factors that cause and maintain poverty in Guatemala. Approximately 40% of the population is illiterate, and 60% of them are women. Indigenous communities speak a wide range of languages and dialects, but many do not speak Spanish, and this has kept them further marginalized.

Local transport
To travel between cities you can take a shuttle bus (a mini van service almost exclusively for foreigners as it is relatively expensive; £10 for a 5h bus journey), or a chicken bus (£0.5-1 for the same journey). Live chickens can be seen on these buses as on boats around the lake, transported for that day’s food or for a market. Locally, there are also tuc-tucs (from £0.5), and you can hop on a van for around 10p.


Lake Atitlan

Panajachel is in the Guatemalan highlands and is surrounded by volcanoes and Lake Atitlan. The town was originally known as San Francisco Panajachel and is surrounded by fields of coffee, vegetables and flowers. When the Spanish occupied Guatemala in the 16th century, the Spanish and their allies defeated the local Mayan T’zutuhils in the Panajachel area. T’zutuhil is the local language still spoken in the area. The Spanish set up a church and monastery in Panajachel afterwards, and used the town as a center for converting the Indians of the region to the Catholic faith.

The impoverishment has meant that many families’ survival depends to a large extent on income from child or youth labour and a high percentage of children have been forced to seek work in both the formal and the informal sectors. Even if they go to the school, the children will finish lessons around 12.30-1pm and then start working. Most schools are mainly supported by evangelists, and there are only a few schools that are independent. The public education system in Guatemala consists of 6 years of primary education, 3 years of middle school, and 3 years of high school. However, the average number of years spent in school for Guatemala's indigenous population is 2 years. There is a lack of funding, and text books are not widely available, often the teacher will have one text book for each class. The children are really interested in learning though, and have great respect for their teachers.

Guatemalan school

Animal welfare
Animals in Guatemala are often regarded as something which serves a purpose (food, source of work or for guarding the house). Horses are used to taking tourists for example up a mountain, and the horses are often left without water in the heat to wait for prospective customers. There are many homeless dogs in Guatemala. The welfare of animals in Guatemala is not so much a question of cruelty, but of neglect and lack of understanding. Veterinary care is expensive and in many cases unavailable. Only a few vets offer free spay/neuter services, services that alleviate the problem with the large number of homeless dogs. If you are up early in the morning you can sometimes see poisoned dogs and rats on the street, before they have been cleared away to be dumped somewhere.

Chicken being offered for sale at market

Panajachel has several restaurants and cafes, many owned by foreigners who serve vegetable-based food and sometimes tofu. In locally-owned restaurants food to eat includes tortillas, black beans, fava beans or broad beans (Vicia faba), chayote (Sechium edule) (an edible plant belonging to the family Cucurbitaceae along with melons, cucumbers and squash, the leaves and fruit have diuretic, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory properties) and Chilacayote (Cucurbita ficifolia) (annual plant grown at high altitudes for its edible fat- and protein-rich seeds, fruit, and greens). The corn, an important staple food, is often of local varieties which the Mayans have cultivated for generations. However, synthetic fertilizers are often used.

Guatemala has habitats such as rain/cloud forest, arid valleys, swamps and ocean shores, and an abundance of animal species, including 250 species of mammals, 600 species of birds and 200 species of reptiles and amphibians along with many species of butterflies and other insects. The national bird, the Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, can be seen in several parts of the country. Guatemala's flora includes more than 8,000 species of plants. The national flower, the White Nun Orchid, Lycaste skinneri alba (Monja Blanca in Spanish), is among 600 species of orchid's that can be seen in Guatemala.*

Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno

White Nun Orchid, Lycaste skinneri alba

* Enjoy Guatemala  

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